Gwen Viner saw the familiar number appear on the crack-riddled screen of her phone and involuntarily leapt. Her knee clipped the pointed edge of her desk as she rose. Even the furniture was against her. Nursing her knee, she distractedly answered the call.
Despite having received calls from the school on an almost weekly basis for the last five years, she never failed to answer the phone with an uncertain tone in her voice, that most would reserve for an unknown number at midnight.
‘Hi Gwen. Dan Kurnt here, from Northern Sydney Grammar, again. Is now a bad time to chat?’
Gwen’s eyes darted over her desk. Despite her reluctance, nothing sprang to mind.
‘No.. no.. I’ve got a few minutes.’
‘Great… Well, I just wanted to touch base and chat about Ben... He seems to be having a really tough time keeping up with his work load. Now, if it was just that he was struggling with the content we could be addressing that within class. But… my concern is that he seems to be purposefully avoiding work.’
‘Yes, well but you see….’
Dan cut her off. He knew what was coming. It was really only a question of who it would be this time.
‘For example Gwen, I noticed today that Ben didn’t have his copy of The Book of Martyrs with him. When I asked him where it was he informed me that he lost it. It turns out that he lost it three weeks ago and hasn’t sought out another one since. That is a bit of a problem. After all it is the set text for English this term...’
She had stopped listening. Her fingers were frantically tracing the faded family tree on a sheet of paper stuck to her cubicle wall. The boughs were plucked bare, with names crossed out in a variety of different coloured biros. Her chewed nails arrived at the skinny end of a distant branch. Steven Harrison born: 1949.
She pulled the handset back to her ear, to the sound of Dan’s voice.
‘... as the trial HSC exams start in-’
‘Yes, well, you see we’ve just had a death in the family. My Great Uncle Steve. The loss has been very tough on us all.’
There it was. Dan had to hand it to her. The family tree was extensive and in the last five years she had never doubled up. Partly out of frustration and partly for kicks, he decided to probe.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. My, you have had a devastating run. No family should be forced to endure such hardship. Was Ben close with... Great Uncle Steve?’
‘Ben never got to meet him…’ Gwen began to choke up. ‘That’s what really hurts! Living only five kilometres away and never so much as a catch up. Can you imagine the guilt?’
Dan could not.
‘Ben is so good at masking his emotions but I know inside he’s torn to ribbons!’
At this point Gwen broke into uncontrollable wailing. In most workplaces, a concerned throng of co-workers would have gathered to console their grieving friend. However, at Benson and Singh Paper Co, the well of sympathy for the girl who cried “dead relative” had well and truly dried up. Not even her frequent tears could fill it again. David in the next cubicle put headphones on to drown out the noise, whilst Belinda on the other side skipped out for an early lunch.
‘Gwen…. Gwen.’ Dan attempted to cut through the barrage of distress raining down the line. ‘Gwen. That is shocking to hear that they never met. Unfathomable, really, but I feel we need to make Ben’s wellbeing and success the top priority. I’m sure you would agree?’
‘Despite all the emotional barriers I want to partner with you to ensure that Ben is getting his work completed. Not only in class but at home.’
Gwen could hardly believe what she was hearing. Her emotions dismissed, now her parenting was under attack?
‘Mr Kurnt, are you saying that I am a bad parent?’
‘Wh-... no, sorry, I think you might have misunderstood, what I meant-.’
‘As a single mother, it is hard at the best of times! And at a time like this when our family’s very world seems to be collapsing around us, do you really have to twist the knife and say that I am a terrible parent?’
‘Please, Gwen, that’s not what I said at all. We as a school want to partner…’
‘Never before have I felt so attacked!’
‘And I’m not one to take things personally.’
‘Now, normally I would never write a letter...’
‘... but I will certainly be putting in a complaint against you for such emotionally abusive behaviour.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that Gwen,’ Dan said, unconvincingly. ‘Look, how about we speak about this later? Take some time to grieve. How about you give me a call at a time that suits you?’
Gwen hung up the phone, turned to her computer and set about righting this wrong. She pulled up the Principal’s email and began to furiously type.
Belinda knocked timidly on the wall of Gwen’s cubicle.
‘Gwen, we’re on for 11:30?’
‘Not now Belinda,’ Gwen said, without looking up. ‘I’m actually swamped.’
This letter wasn’t going to write itself after all! If it took another hour to adequately capture Mr Kurnt’s vindictiveness, then so be it!
Belinda looked down at her watch.
‘Well… I guess we could re-schedule for around two...’
‘Yes. Great.’ The words were spat through clenched teeth.
Belinda turned to walk away but missed her step. Reaching for the cubicle wall, she began to slide towards the floor, her chest thumping and her head becoming light.
Gwen hardly heard the thud but the crowd of co-workers that began to congregate around the entrance to her cubicle made it impossible to concentrate on the complexities of the letter. Couldn’t a woman find any peace within her workplace?
Spinning her chair in frustration she almost kicked Belinda in the face, which was now turning a fatal shade of blue. Her head was buoyed by a towel, in a futile attempt at comfort.
‘Hang in there Bel, you’re gonna be ok,’ said Dave, reassuringly.
She was struggling to speak.
‘Shhh Bel, just relax. The Ambulance is coming past Dee Why now. Just relax,’ cooed Dave, whilst frantically googling first aid on his phone. Her eyes writhed in her head, and came to meet Gwen’s.
‘Tell my husband, I love him...’ Her voice cut out, and her mouth opened and closed like a fish drowning in oxygen. ‘Tell him he made me very happy...’
Her final breath left her body, accompanied by a chunk of froth, which flew into the air and came to rest on the toe of Gwen’s shoe.
‘Ahhhh, yuck!’ Gwen rubbed the froth into the carpet, and thanked God that she always wore ‘sensible’ shoes.
The ambulance was late.
Mr Rajit Singh peered down at his former employee now silhouetted by a white sheet. She seemed too young to die. He shook his head sadly. Beside him, Gwen carried on her tirade.
‘And she looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Tell my husband that he was amazing and that we were so in love. Tell him that we had the best marriage”... I’m sorry Mr. Singh, but even a casual observer can see how that is clearly a shot at me.’
His brow furrowed, and he shot her a sideways glance.
‘Oh, I’m separated,’ she said, as if that was clarification.
Mr Singh was not overly surprised.
He looked over at her. Her two fingers rested against her neck, testing her pulse, lest she too fall victim to a heart attack.
This was going to be difficult.
His suspicions had been raised initially, when two months ago her cousin Roger had fallen into a well. Hearing her tears earlier that morning for her Uncle Steve, and now having Belinda drop dead on the office floor, it was confirmed:
She was a bad omen.
Death on legs.
He had been sceptical of his grandmother’s stories as a small boy in Chennai. They seemed an explanation for an older world. But death seemed to follow this woman like a shadow. And when it was beginning to invade the four walls of his paper company, he had an obligation to act. And quickly!
‘Gwen… Can you step into my office? We need to discuss something...’
* * *
The windows were dark, as she crossed the lawn to her front door. It was fitting, she thought melodramatically, to find the house in a state of darkness. Mascara streaked down her cheeks, like crusted roots through dry earth. Unemployment was proving to be something she wouldn’t wear well, having previously hurled disparaging comments at the current affairs’ investigation into “dole bludgers”. She wore her postcode like a badge of honour. The ‘2102’ sticker on her Camry let everyone know that she was probably better than them.
‘I might have to get used to having no power,’ she thought, with victimised flair. ‘Soon, I won’t be able to pay the bill… I’m certainly not going to able to live in Warriewood anymore.’
She pushed through the front door, to the sound of gentle tears meandering down the hall towards her. Her son was sitting in the darkness of the lounge room, his head buried in his sweaty, tear-soaked hands.
‘Ben, are we in a blackout? Why aren’t you doing your homework?’ she probed, rubbing the streaks off her cheeks.
He looked up, bleary eyed.
‘Mum… How could I do homework? Mr Kurnt told me that my Great Uncle Steve died! I never even met him!’ His voice rose to a crescendo, turning into a muffled wail as he buried his head back in his hands.
Gwen’s jaw dropped.
‘Well, what about me, Ben?’ tapping her hands on her chest in exasperation. ‘Can you spare a thought for me? It’s not always about you… At work today, Belinda bloody well died, and used her final words to have a dig at me! And then I got fired! Frankly, after the day I’ve had, I’m really disappointed to come home and find you fart-arsing around like this!’
There was no time to tell him that Great Uncle Steve was alive and well in Newport. She desperately needed a moment to herself. Did she not at least deserve that?
She curled into bed, with time for only two thoughts; First, she wondered how she had managed to raise such a self-involved child, with such little concern for others. Secondly, as sleep began to engulf her, she wondered whether she could use his fictional death as a pity card in her upcoming job interviews.